Learning before incidents

Erik Green, CEO and partner, Green-Jakobsen A/S. Credit: Green-Jakobsen A/S

Switching from reactive learning to proactive group thinking creates a stronger safety culture

Learning from incidents is extremely important and over the years the industry has developed several strong methods to ensure that ‘hindsight learning’ is possible. But learning from incidents is, by definition, reactive. To follow the line of reasoning that safety cultures must become proactive, improved ways to support a ‘learning before an incident’ culture should be on the agenda.

How often, in our professional and personal life, when things go wrong, have we heard the explanation “I wasn’t thinking clearly!”, or “I have never really thought about it in this way before”, or “It didn’t cross my mind” or even “I see now that I should have given it more thought”. Common for all these statements is that they imply a lack of thinking prior to an event and that the person should have spent more time considering the risks beforehand.

At Green-Jakobsen our aim is always to help build proactive safety cultures, instilling ‘ways of doing’ to help us learn before an incident. But what are the characteristics of a safety culture that is capable of ‘learning before an incident’? The starting point is the group’s ability to think, critically reflect, and allow people to act accordingly.

Human thinking leads to perceptions that again leads to behaviour. The way we manage our thinking is, in other words, decisive for our successes and failures. Our thinking can both help us and let us down but seen from a safety perspective, how do we ensure that our thinking – as a group – helps rather than lets us down?

Proactive group thinking is the starting point for a proactive safety behaviour. Developing our ability to think both as individuals and as a group helps us better assess, understand and learn things prior to performing a job that we would not have seen otherwise.

Human thinking is a concept that most of us can talk about and discuss, however, if the maritime industry truly wants to develop proactive safety cultures we need to: Legalise time for ‘learning before incident thinking’ and allow everyone to share their thoughts and concerns, and apply existing ‘learning before incident’ thinking methods and tools.

In this respect, we also wish to question the perception that (many years of) experience provides us with the strongest asset for being safe (or competent). Experience is extremely important but unchallenged and non-reflected experiences can create huge stumbling blocks. Whenever we perform a job, we draw on our experiences but since due to our ever-changing working environments, experience is only a starting point for being safe.

Experience directs our thoughts and behaviour, but we need to think about whether our experience is accurate in the given situation. To ensure that our experience does not misguide us, experience from time to time needs to explore other thoughts and ways of thinking.

Truly understanding a situation, our communication, behaviour, attitudes, influence on others, ability to spot developing events and perform operational debriefings, requires more than experience.

It needs a ‘thinking’ mind, not a reactive one; situational awareness is good but situational understanding is better. Similarly, awareness is improved when critical group thinking is used. Proactive ‘thinking tools’ are available – let’s start using them. Learning before incidents skills can be developed like any other competence.